09/01/2009 12:00AM

Casino agreement reached with Seminoles


A compact signed on Monday between Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and the state's Seminole Indian tribe has Florida's Thoroughbred industry deliberating whether to support the agreement in the state legislature, racing officials said Tuesday.

Negotiations over the compact were being closely watched by the racing industry because legislative approval of the document would trigger provisions in a bill passed earlier this year that are generally favorable to racetrack casino operations. However, racing officials said Tuesday that the economic impact of the compact's language had yet to be sufficiently analyzed, in part because of convoluted sections of the agreement. As a result, racing interests said they did not know if they would lobby for or against approval of the compact.

"We're all going to get together, the racetracks, the breeders, the horsemen, to figure out where to stand on this," said Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist for Gulfstream Park, the Hallandale racetrack and casino owned by bankrupt Magna Entertainment Corp. "Right now it's just hard to know what to do. We have some real issues to work through."

The legislation passed earlier this year would cut the tax rates at casinos run by racetracks from 50 percent to 35 percent. It would also allow Hialeah Park to open a casino if the track held brief race meets in each of the next two years.

Those provisions will not go into effect unless the legislature approves the compact. Crist said on Monday that he expects to call the legislature into special session in October. Legislators have already expressed reservations about approving the compact, and the Seminoles have said they will not open the compact to negotiations, though officials said they doubted that the tribe will cut off all negotiating channels over the next six weeks.

Under the compact, the Seminoles would be allowed to run table games like blackjack, craps, and baccarat at all seven of their Florida casinos. In exchange, the tribe would pay the state at least $150 million a year for the next 20 years.

However, the compact also allows the tribe to reduce its contributions to the state if the legislature authorizes casino-type gambling outside of the two most populous south Florida counties. The compact may also allow the Seminoles to cease making payments to the state on its two casino properties in Miami when either Calder Race Course or Flagler Greyhound Park opens a casino. Both tracks are expected to offer slot-machine betting later this year.

Racing officials said that the casinos at south Florida parimutuel facilities would find it difficult to compete with the Seminole casinos in the area if the Seminole properties were not paying taxes. As a result, the parimutuel facilities may decide to lobby against passage of the compact, even if it means retaining the current 50 percent tax rate, the officials said.